I often get asked why I decided to study Arabic at university and to this day I give the same ridiculous but truthful answer: I had been obsessed with the TV series ‘Homeland’. The beginning of ‘Homeland’ in 2011 also happened to coincide with the beginnings of the ‘Arab Spring’, a series of protests, uprisings and revolts that spread throughout the MENA region, triggered by a fruit-seller in Tunisia setting himself alight in protest of government suppression. Not only did it lead to the toppling of several regimes and their once long-standing dictatorships, but it caused an exponential increase in western media coverage of the region, its history and its religion: Islam.
After each terrorist attack on foreign ground post 9/11, as well as those within the Arab world, Islam is subjected to fresh criticism of its teachings and way of life. An area that the western world once thought of as exotic and mysterious is now radical and backward, adhering to a misogynistic, fundamentalist religion.
But herein, to me, lies the problem. We as Westerners possess some negative, muddled preconceptions about the Arab world. Having spent some years studying its history, its religion and then ten months living in Jordan and traveling throughout the region, I want to dispel some of these myths and enlighten you with new stories of Arab hospitality and a religion that is a driving force of community.
Of course, I recognize the vast issues that the region faces. Many of the countries are still under oppressive, dictatorial regimes and Islam, for all of its positives, does have some serious issues, ones that need to be looked from within the Islamic world with a fresh, 21st century perspective. Sadly, if recent developments on the Jamal Khashoggi case are anything to go by, Saudi Arabia is becoming, by the day, closer to the negative image – backward, radical and oppressive – that the majority of the Arab world wishes to rid itself of.
The peoples of the Arab world are not homogenous, and should by no means be classed as such. Not only is every country different, but within that country there are a plethora of different ethnic groups. When the French and British divided up the Middle East under the Sykes-Picot agreement in 1917 (and in doing so, instigated a century’s worth of disputes and conflict) the Arab world became an area where religion, ethnicity and food totally transcended borders; groups were locked inside physical borders that were irreflective of their ethnic make-up. You cannot take any issue or event in the Arab world and analyse it or judge from an isolated perspective. Like the people within them, each country’s history is so complex, turbulent and long that you must reflect back to events in history to explain the present.
With this, we begin a journey over the snowy mountains of Lebanon, across the deserts of Oman and to both sides of the division wall between Israel and Palestine. And as is customary when you begin any type of journey, be that in a taxi heading to the supermarket or driving off down the Desert Highway in Jordan, we say in Arabic ‘God willing’. With that in mind, the story continues, God willing.